Probably no name, other than those of the prophets themselves, is better known in the field of predictive Bible prophecy than that of JOHN NELSON DARBY. No name of modern times is more respected by those who eagerly anticipate the Saviour’s return for His espoused bride, the church. Few names are more vilified by the latter day scoffers that Peter predicted would come, 2 Pet. 2. 3-7.
Darby was not, as many claim, the first ‘dispensationalist’. Such church fathers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria recognized dispensations, even if they did not use the actual term. More than a century before Darby’s time, Poiret, Edwards and Watts formulated tables of dispensations. Indeed, Watts’s, as well as Darby’s contribution appears to underpin Scofield’s well-known dispensational applications. However, it is the indefatigable Darby for whom we should probably most thank God for helping our understanding of His revealed plan of the ages. He expounded and popularized these truths.
He and his successors, such as Kelly, Scott, Vine, Hole, Pollock and Tatford, are still greatly respected and quoted beyond as well as within assembly circles. Others, such as Dennett and Baines seem to have fallen into obscurity, and are almost unknown to leading American dispensational pre-millennialists.
Just as the normally irreconcilable Herodians and Pharisees put aside their differences in order to try to trap the Lord Jesus regarding tribute to Caesar and many other divisive issues, so amillennialists, post-millennialists and post-tribulationists, whose prophetic programmes are, incidentally, completely incompatible with one another, forget their differences when trying to pick holes in pre-tribulationism view as taught by Darby. Jonathan Burnham, in his recent book, A Story of Conflict, Paternoster Press, does this, presenting favourably any eschatology which is out of line with that of Darby. While purporting to be a study of the relationship between Darby and Newton, the book contains a tacit attack on the ‘secret rapture’ as well as on Darby’s general credibility.
In a sense Darby is very vulnerable, because his writings and lecture notes from the period in which he was formulating his understanding are still available to researchers. His first steps were shaky indeed. Thus one finds him saying things in the 1820’s and 1830’s which he would have corrected by the 1840’s. Basing a critique on anyone’s early work is unscrupulous and dishonest if the dates are not explained.
Darby was one of a number of people, including Newton, Drummond, Maitland and Irvine, who were deeply committed to understanding the prophetic word, and who regularly met for discussion. In the course of time they went their several ways. Divisions between them extended, in some cases, far beyond the field of eschatology. Yet there are writers who have attempted to discredit Darby’s prophetic teaching by quoting the quite irrelevant stances of Irvine and other one-time associates as if Darby shared their views. Some American writers give the impression of knowing more of events in Britain and Ireland at that time than their British counterparts! These writers have remained largely unchallenged, and others have used them as ‘reliable’ authorities for denouncing our belief in the potentially everimminent return of our Saviour from heaven. To be fair, on the other hand, other notable modern American scholars value and vindicate Darby. It is doubtful if anybody believes Darby to be infallible, even if it is convenient for some to portray him as being regarded thus. His most loyal successors have made certain adjustments. And of course events have inevitably overtaken some of the necessary surmising. The early brethren writers knew that a largely unrepentant Israel would be at least partly back in the Promised Land by early in the tribulation period, but they were uncertain whether this return was to be before or immediately after the rapture. Events of the 20th century answered this question. Kelly made certain assumptions based on the fact that Jerusalem was within the Ottoman Empire; 1917 altered all that situation. They were simply legitimately and intelligently applying the signs of the times in the light available.
But by and large these earnest men are being proved right by unfolding history. They are not, like the neo-postmillennialists of recent decades, masquerading under a dozen different names, such as ‘manifest sons of God’, who made extravagant and rash predictions about the ‘new thing’ which God was about to do. Formerly premillennial congregations rushed to join this new bandwagon. Cities and towns were ‘claimed for Jesus’ in a way quite foreign to any previous revivals. And what has happened? In many of these ‘claimed’ cities churches are being closed in as quick succession as mosques, Buddhist meditation centres and pagan temples are being opened. The Bible has the sternest possible messages for those who make predictions that do not come to pass, see Deuteronomy 18 verse 22, etc. Yet, one hears few admissions of guilt from these quarters. ‘Evangelicals’ wander in a prophetic no-man’s land at a time when the required message is one of ‘Thus saith the Lord!’
Those eagerly seeking the rapture are frequently made fun of, because they and their forebears have been doing so since the time of Darby, and as yet their faith remains unrewarded by fulfilment. People forget that the early saints had this same expectation. But that should not be seen as a problem. In fact those who poke fun are themselves fulfilling a significant latter day prophecy. In Peter’s second letter not only are latter day scoffers promised, but their arguments are recorded – ‘all things continue as they were’. In fact all things do not continue as they were; the portentous signs of the times are terrifying our scientists and environmentalists. But sadly a sleeping church seems to be blind to them.
God’s timing is always perfect and it was demonstrably so with Darby and his contemporaries and successors. The signs of the times are inextricably linked with God’s ancient people, Israel – the fig tree that lay withered and dormant since the Lord Jesus cursed it. We are instructed to watch for its putting on leaves, and not please note, for its bearing fruit, Luke 21. 29-31. The fruit will appear only after the coming Messiah has returned in glory. The very first stirrings of modern Zionism were taking place at the time that Darby and his associates were avidly searching the pages of the prophetic scriptures. By the 1840’s he and others were preaching and teaching that Israel was central to the God-ordained latter-day programme. It quickly caught on. Many others, both within and beyond the assemblies proclaimed a challenging and exciting eschatology, lost since before the Dark Ages. Particularly influential were Sir Robert Anderson and Dwight L. Moody. Many Christian politicians and statesmen were convinced.
Thus, when in 1897 Herzl presided at the first international Zionist conference, influential Christians were supportive of a movement that they believed to be divinely sanctioned. A century earlier the prevailing post-millennialism would have dismissed such a movement as heretical nonsense. When in 1917 the British took Jerusalem from Turkey, and the perceptive British General Lord Allenby humbly entered the city on foot, leading his horse, thus refusing to pre-empt the glorious and victorious return of the once despised and rejected Messiah. The then British Foreign Secretary, Balfour, and others were now ready to declare the concept of a Jewish Homeland. Subsequent British involvement has, to our shame, not often been so creditable. Suffice it to confirm that all the evidence points to God having raised up men like Darby at a critical point in human history.
We owe, in the Lord, a great debt of gratitude to the expository giants of the early brethren movement. Their eagerness to know more of God’s gracious promises as revealed in scripture, and to avoid being the ‘fools and slow of heart to believe all the scriptures’, the condemnation of the two disciples on the Emmaus road, should be a challenge to us. Sadly though, the ‘spirit of this age’ has put in peril this splendid heritage of prophetic scholarship so that it is frequently ignored, even in places where it once thrilled believers. We owe it to our young people to guard our heritage and to pass it on to them. They may well be pre-occupied with ‘green issues’ but are sadly so unaware that the prophecy of ‘men’s hearts failing them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth’ is currently being fulfilled, Luke 21. 26. Although these things should not trouble the redeemed, because their God is still in control, we also owe it to the unsaved. There are fewer more effective spurs to evangelism than a biblically based call to ‘Flee from the wrath to come’, and ‘Maranatha, the Lord is coming!’ So brethren, ‘Guard your heritage’.